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Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
April 17, 2006
DeKalb, Ill. — Northern Illinois University faculty members Courtlandt Bohn in physics, David Buller in philosophy and Kenton Clymer in history have been awarded 2006 Presidential Research Professorships, the university's top recognition for outstanding research.
“Our 2006 award recipients are truly deserving of this honor,” said Rathindra Bose, NIU vice president for research and dean of the Graduate School. “Each individual has accomplished so much in his respective field, and they are all recognized both nationally and internationally for their research.
“While these awards are very competitive, this year's selections were easy for the election committee,” Bose added. “The three award winners clearly stood above anyone else.”
The Presidential Research Professorships have been awarded annually since 1982 in recognition and support of NIU's research and artistic mission. Award winners receive special financial support of their research for four years, after which they carry the title of Distinguished Research Professor. (See www.niu.edu/president/prplist.shtml for a list of past winners.)
Here's a closer look at this year's award recipients.
Trained in the world-renowned astrophysics program at the University of Chicago, Courtlandt Bohn's star has risen in a field that would seem far removed. Instead of gazing toward the heavens, he studies the subatomic workings of laser beams.
Bohn leads a research group that is shedding new light on the complicated evolution of charged-particle beams as they accelerate. The aim is to learn how to produce the most intense beams possible, an area of keen interest to industries ranging from national defense to manufacturing.
High-powered lasers extract their light from accelerator beams. For the military, Bohn's group is creating simulation tools and software needed to develop lasers that would let Navy fleets defend against cruise missiles at the speed of light. In manufacturing, advanced lasers can be used to modify the surface of a wide variety of materials. For instance, fabrics such as polyester can be made to look and feel like silk; plastic sandwich wrap can be modified to be bacteria resistant.
So where does astrophysics (a branch of astronomy) fit in? Beams and galaxies evolve in similar ways.
“Professor Bohn is one of the most productive researchers at NIU,” said Distinguished Research Professor Gerald Blazey. “His ambition is to make NIU the institution of choice for students wishing to pursue fundamental beam and accelerator physics, and he is well on his way.”
Bohn, who holds both his master's degree and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, arrived at NIU in 2002. A frequent invited speaker who has authored more than 100 research articles, he previously worked at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory. He continues collaborations at both institutions.
During the 1990s, Bohn led the design, construction and commissioning of a free-electron laser at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Virginia. The device surpassed the record for average power by nearly 200 times, a feat that led to new technologies and opened major areas of scientific inquiry.
A former military officer, Bohn at one time directed nearly all U.S. Air Force laser and accelerator programs from the Air Force Secretariat in the Pentagon. As an associate professor of physics at the Air Force Academy, he won major research awards.
At NIU, Bohn established the Beam Physics and Astrophysics Group, which now includes three faculty members, four postdoctoral research associates, four graduate students and a cluster of 112 computers. The group, which has attracted nearly $3 million in research funding, already has had an impact on accelerator physics. It could further play an important role in bringing future large accelerator facilities to the region, said Stephen Holmes, associate director for accelerators at Fermilab.
“Through Court's efforts, NIU is on a trajectory towards establishing itself as a world-class university center for accelerator physics,” Holmes added.
Bohn envisions building an electron accelerator at NIU with unprecedented beam intensity that would be used for high-resolution measurements of materials. “I want NIU to have something of real value that no one else has,” Bohn said.
He regularly incorporates his research into the advanced physics courses that he teaches. “On several occasions, I got an idea for research that came as a result of preparing course lectures,” he said. “So it goes both ways.”
David Buller cemented his reputation as a world-class philosopher with a book published last year that, at first blush, might appear outside the realm of philosophy.
In “Adapting Minds,” Buller rejects the dominant paradigm in evolutionary psychology, which holds that human nature was designed by natural selection in our hunter-gatherer ancestors tens of thousands of years ago. By academic-publishing standards, the book has been a blockbuster, having already sold about 5,000 copies and attracted a crossover audience among academics and the general public alike.
Evolutionary psychology employs a kind of reverse engineering to explain the evolved design of the mind, figuring out the adaptive problems that our ancestors faced and then inferring the psychological adaptations that evolved to solve them.
The paradigm's proponents claim many discoveries based on this approach, including the evolutionary rationale for human mate preferences (that males prefer nubile females and females prefer high-status males) and for “discriminative parental solicitude” (the idea that stepparents abuse their stepchildren at a higher rate than genetic parents).
Drawing on a wide range of empirical research, including his own large-scale study of child abuse, Buller demonstrates that many of evolutionary psychology's most publicized discoveries are unsupported by the evidence. He argues that human minds are not trapped in the Pleistocene era, but rather are like the immune system, continually adapting over both evolutionary time and individual lifetimes.
“Adapting Minds” has been roundly praised in such publications as Science, Nature, Slate, New Scientist, the Wall Street Journal and The Times Literary Supplement (London), and it was chosen as an Alternate Selection of Scientific American Book Club.
“Buller's book is an excellent example of what a first-rate philosophical intelligence can achieve when it is applied to a scientific research program,” said the University of Wisconsin's Elliott Sober, one of the world's foremost philosophers of biology.
Added Peter Godfrey-Smith of Harvard University, “David's book has rapidly become recognized as the best work written by a philosopher about evolutionary psychology. It has had a very substantial impact and has a good chance of being seen as something of a landmark within the field.”
Buller received his master's degree and Ph.D. in philosophy from Northwestern University. After four years as a professor at Colgate University, he came to NIU in 1993 and has served as chair of the Department of Philosophy for the past three years. The National Science Foundation has provided significant support for his research.
Using philosophical methods, Buller investigates issues at the intersection of psychology and biology. The work requires research in neurobiology, developmental biology and evolutionary biology and has resulted in numerous articles, book chapters and invited talks. “I've been trying to do philosophy with scientific problems, not with philosophical problems,” he said. “For this reason, many philosophers would say my research isn't philosophy at all.”
Buller intends to expand his research focus in his next book, which also promises to have crossover appeal.
“I have begun to investigate a range of biological explanations of human sex differences, including sex differences in sexual strategies, parenting, sexual jealousy, personality, spatial reasoning, linguistic ability and mathematical ability,” Buller said. “The overarching goal of this book project will be to separate biological reality from ‘psychological hype.' ”
Three decades ago, Kenton Clymer traveled on a Fulbright grant to Silliman University in the Philippines, and in many respects, he never looked back.
Clymer's first experience in a foreign culture—teaching at the missionary-founded seaside campus during the era of Ferdinand Marcos-imposed martial law—proved to be life-altering.
Today, Clymer is recognized as a leading scholar in the history of American relations with South and Southeast Asia. Over the course of his career, he has traveled to more than 30 countries and conducted extensive archival research in India, Cambodia, the Philippines, Australia and Great Britain.
“He is a path-breaking historian whose various studies of U.S. relations with the nations and peoples of South and Southeast Asia have significantly shaped the scholarship on American foreign policy in Asia,” said David Anderson of California State University, a past president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR).
“In many ways, Kenton pioneered what has now become expected for American historians researching international topics, namely extended research in the archives of the many countries that are subject of the study,” Anderson added.
Clymer, who was named chair of the NIU Department of History in 2003, holds both a master's degree and Ph.D. in history from the University of Michigan, as well as an A. B. degree from Grinnell College in Iowa. Prior to coming to NIU, he spent more than 30 years on the faculty of the University of Texas at El Paso.
In addition to his time in the Philippines, Clymer has won Fulbright grants to teach in Indonesia and most recently in China, where he spent two semesters as Distinguished Fulbright Lecturer at Renmin University in Beijing. He also has held the George Bancroft Visiting Chair in American History at the University of Göttingen in Germany.
Clymer has published numerous articles and book reviews, as well as five books on topics ranging from John Hay (secretary of state for William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt), to Protestant missionaries in the Philippines, to U.S. relations with India. The works are often cited as standards in their areas of study.
In 2005, his two-volume work, “The United States and Cambodia, 1870-2000,” won SHAFR's prestigious Robert H. Ferrell Book Prize, for distinguished scholarship on the history of U.S. foreign relations.
“Each of Kenton's books has, in its own way, changed the field,” said historian Andrew Rotter of Colgate University. “His willingness to renew himself as a teacher and scholar on unfamiliar ground is testament to his energy, openness to fresh experience and desire to challenge himself.”
Clymer teaches courses in the history of American foreign relations. It's not uncommon for him to introduce materials in class that he has discovered in various archives, such as a telegram from Ho Chi Minh to Harry Truman or a CIA assessment of communism in the late 1940s.
“Teaching and research often go together,” Clymer said. “The research itself informs my lectures and presentations.”
He is currently researching homeland defense in the 1950s, a topic that will likely have parallels to modern-day national security. “While I often find aspects of the past fascinating in themselves, I have always found historical study most interesting when it illuminates the present,” Clymer said.